Sunday, November 09, 2014

A brief note about my concert-consumed youth (featuring Ginuwine)

Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of shows – The Roots on the “Phrenology” tour at the Fillmore (2003), Daft Punk in the dance tent at Coachella (2006), the Beastie Boys secret show at Stubb’s at SXSW (2006), Vampire Weekend at Amoeba Records the day their first album came out (2008), Macklemore climbing the rafters at Antone’s (2013), Sarah McLachlan and the Dixie Chicks at the Lilith Fair at Pine Knob (1999) (these are not meant as brags*, but more attempts to justify my hearing loss).

Through all these, there is one show in particular that’s stuck with me.

It was 1996 and my best friend Erica convinced her mom to let us go by ourselves to our, or at least my, first real concert. 

Up to this point (and probably past this point), whenever someone asked me what kind of music I was into, I would try to change the subject.  Kids at our middle school listened to one of two radio stations – the “alternative” station that primarily played Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers (and which, if you turn to it right now, I swear will be playing Metallica or Red Hot Chili Peppers) or the hip-hop station, which primarily played Freak Nasty’s “Da’ Dip.”  

I didn’t feel comfortable pledging allegiance to either of these, but Erica was all about the hip-hop station.  We’d listen late at night and call and make dedications to boyfriends we didn’t have and people who didn’t exist.  We’d listen in the morning and try to win tickets to shows though we weren’t old enough to claim them.  When the station announced their first “Power Jam” concert, Erica decided we had to go.

Her older brother drove us to the ballpark, Cohen Stadium, a venue whose aroma and signage reminded you that Tuesdays were 25-cent hot dog nights.  The stage was set up on the baseball field, and throngs of people surrounded it, all packed in to see the headliners – Keith Sweat and Ginuwine.

When Ginuwine took the stage, he was dressed head to toe in a shiny lime green suit.  He was about to release “Ginuwine…the Bachelor” and as he sang women let out shrieks.  The smooth voice, the more than suggestive dance moves.  The women in the crowd pulled him off the stage, into their muddled mass, and took his lime green top off, so that he re-emerged shirtless and had to fight to pull his jacket back from the groping ladies.  They did not want to let go. 

I thought to myself, these are grown women.  And, Is this what goes on at concerts?  As a 12-year-old seeing her first show, the scene was rather disconcerting, both the engineering of this sexualized performance and the reactions of these crazed women.  (It’s led to some confusing feelings whenever I hear the song “Pony” – on one hand I’m transported back to this weird childhood baseball stadium experience, but on the other hand, it’s a pretty undeniably hot song.)

When it was announced that Ginuwine would be part of this year’s Fun Fun Fun Fest lineup, some perversely nostalgic part of me thought, well, I have to see that.

Dressed in all white, with a belt seemingly designed to draw attention to his crotch, Ginuwine’s set essentially functioned like a DJ’d dance party.  There were curated drops of other people’s songs (DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win,” House Of Pain’s “Jump Around”), continuous blares of an air horn sound, and after thanking God, the crowd, and Michael Jackson (in that order), there was the requisite MJ tribute.  There wasn’t much of an emphasis on Ginuwine’s own music – save for some reminders of his signature lyrics ("Is there any more room for me / in those jeans").

While 18 years ago, he’d had to pry his jacket back from ladies, shedding his shirt’s now a solid part of the act – he teases the crowd that it’s going to happen, it’s mentioned that he’s been working out, and one of his backing singers eventually rips Ginuwine’s white t-shirt and tosses it away.  (I wonder how many rip-able shirts he takes on tour with him?)

It took many years after middle school to realize that my little indie heart beat hardest for bands that would have never been played by the “alternative” station or the hip-hop station.  But, that first show definitely opened up an odd new world.   

On Friday, when Ginuwine went into some suggestive one-legged push ups I did take a look around the crowd – to verify that this was happening, and to guess if it was anybody’s first concert. 

*Who brags about going to the Lilith Fair?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The National At ACL Live

Finishing a three-night stint at ACL Live, last night The National delivered a nearly two-hour set, backed by a screen that projected pulsing recorded images layered with an oscillating live video feed.  For a band whose sound is often sullen and whose lyrics are often double-edged, a pulsating screen and rotating light show could be seen as an encumbered distraction – but it could also serve as evidence of further evolution.  The band is okay with heightening its production value.

After all, the true focus could not be kept from Matt Berninger, who prowled the stage relentlessly between songs and in pockets of instrumental interludes.

The Brooklyn-by-way-of-Ohio band drew much of their set from their latest, Trouble Will Find Me, and previous, High Violet, with Berninger frequently hitting his microphone against his side or his head or throwing it in a burst against the stage.  Throughout the set he exploded with a sort of bottled rage buried beneath that steadily sonorous and melancholy voice.  The peak came just past three-quarters of the way into the show, with Berninger giving such a high-powered performance on “Graceless” that he’d pushed himself off stage and all the way into the back of the audience on the first floor, causing the techs to scurry to retrieve the microphone cord.

Other audience-interaction attempts were less successful – try as he might, Berninger didn’t quite crowdsurf as much as he did just lay on people.  If you’re a 40-something man in a nice suit with an unmistakable baritone, there’s really no need to crowdsurf.  Give us “Afraid Of Everyone” and “I Should Live In Salt” and let us sing along unplugged to “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” and we’ll be happy.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Best Songs and Albums of 2013

If 2013 boasted some fine albums and some excellent songs, compiling a “best of” list proved to be a challenge.  For every standout and pleasant surprise (Haim’s Days Are Gone, Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time) there were a few releases that one would have had higher hopes for (Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories).  By far the album I found myself routinely returning to was one I’d failed to discover in 2012, Lord Huron’s outstanding Lonesome Dreams.  It’s beautifully orchestrated and full of wistful tender lyrics. 

Best Album picks:

Days Are Gone – Haim
If these SoCal sisters have quickly taken the world by storm, it’s for good reason – their debut is a solid collection of accessibly catchy songs, punctuated by easy harmonizing and powerful choruses.  The album at once feels both familiar and fresh; nostalgic and hopeful for the future.  Do they live up to the hype?  They do.

IV (EP) – The 1975
Sure, this isn’t technically an album, but the five songs on this EP, released four months before their full-length album, hang together well and showcase the spunky simplicity of The 1975.  Much the EP’s charm stems from the jangly guitars and Matthew Healy’s alluring British voice.

The Bones Of What You Believe – Chvrches
The debut disc from this Scottish trio does much to hone a synth-y ‘80s vibe, but the songs really pop thanks to Lauren Mayberry’s hauntingly delicate vocals. 

Night Time, My Time – Sky Ferreira
It’s easy to shy away from this album with its creepily sordid cover art and vague pop promises, but don’t let that deter you.  Songs like “You’re Not The One,” “Boys” and “Heavy Metal Heart” should be more than enough to win you over. 

Modern Vampires Of The City – Vampire Weekend
As tempting as it is to want to dismiss Vampire Weekend, their third album doesn’t disappoint.  Here there’s a sense of evolution, and, if not maturity, certainly themes of getting older.  It suits them, and grooms some great standout tracks, including “Unbelievers” and “Step.”

Trouble Will Find Me – The National
Matt Berninger’s commanding, unmistakable voice can be as comforting as it is unsettling.  The music here stays out of too dark territory; even songs like “Demons” feel like they have an uplifting core.  High Violet may remain a superior album, but Trouble is a nice move.

Muchacho – Phosphorescent
There’s something about the sprawling, “Ring Of Fire”-referencing “Song For Zula” that instantly draws you in to Muchacho.  The song’s swelling melody is accentuated by Matthew Houck’s sometimes creaking voice, which adds a sort of rough texture to the entire alt-country-tinged album.

Heartthrob – Tegan & Sara
Stepping away from the “folk/indie” label, Tegan and Sara may have produced the best pop album of the year.  The oddball Canadian twin sisters pack this album with tight, polished three and a half minute songs about love and relationships.  You know, pop songs.   

AM – Arctic Monkeys
It’s the fifth album from these rollicking Brits and they haven’t lost any of the flamboyant ego from their early  “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” days, but they have chilled out a bit.  It’s a good thing.  There’s a dramatic risky/cool tone to the album, escalated by Alex Turner’s vocals.

Settle – Disclosure
The debut from a pair of English brothers, Settle is an unrelenting electro-dance album with a bit of a bit of a ‘90s throwback feel.  Here the synths feel modern and the lyrical styles feel retro.

Best Songs - Playlist

Do I Wanna Know?” – Arctic Monkeys
“Closer” – Tegan and Sara
“The Mother We Share” – Chvrches
Miracle Mile” – Cold War Kids
“Don’t Save Me” – Haim
“Unbelievers” – Vampire Weekend
Song For Zula” – Phosphorescent
Wings” – Haerts
Here Comes The Night Time” – Arcade Fire
“Graceless” – The National
“Sex” – The 1975
“You’re Not The One” – Sky Ferreira
Take My Hand” – Charli XCX
Happy” – Robert DeLong
“Wanderlust” – The Weeknd
Play By Play” – Autre Ne Veut
“Latch” – Disclosure
“Get Lucky” – Daft Punk
“Blurred Honky Tonk Women” (“Blurred Lines” mash-up) – MadMixMustang

High School Lover” – Cayucas
“Two Fingers” – Jake Bugg
Do What U Want” – Lady Gaga (feat. R. Kelly)
Team” – Lorde
Open” – Rhye